Disillusioned With Life? Replace Disillusionment With Wisdom

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Shorter Version

Est. Reading Time: 2 minutes

Disillusionment means being “freed from deception,” and who wouldn’t like to be so free! But disillusionment in our culture means that your purpose and source of meaning turn out to be a mere dream. You may feel like you’ve been deceiving yourself or you’ve been deceived by others or both. That in turn can leave you feeling disillusioned with life.

That’s not always the case. Maybe you’ve been pursuing a great and realistic dream but were unlucky. Perhaps you made mistakes along the way that prevented you from achieving an otherwise realistic dream. Maybe you’ve just hit difficulty and could succeed by perseverance.

You need to realize that past choices were not necessarily bad choices and that mistakes—especially in your 20’s—can be corrected.

But losing (or seeming to lose) a dream can feel like self-deception. You find yourself saying “Maybe I was wrong all along … why didn’t people tell me … why didn’t I listen …” It’s all too easy to find blogs listing ‘My top disillusionment movies to help you find your way.’ But movies alone won’t give you perspective.

In a popular article in The Atlantic, Marshall Poe has argued that secular colleges should teach religion to their students because religious traditions have been dealing with the problem of disillusionment (even though they don’t always use that word) for centuries. You might be thinking, “Well you don’t need religion to find meaning,” and you’d be right. Philosophical traditions also seek meaning, and virtually all universities already teach philosophy. Poe really means that universities should teach religion in ways that inspire students to apply their teachings to life and not merely as an interesting, politically relevant sociological investigation.

Explore Wisdom When You Feel Disillusioned With Life

Both philosophical and religious traditions are basically traditions of wisdom. Wisdom teaches worthwhile aspirations, the traits of character needed to strive for them, and the ideas that connect our minds to reality.

That last bit—ideas that connect our minds to reality—is particularly helpful with disillusionment. They replace our ‘illusions’ with knowledge and understanding, so that disillusionment does not remain a paralyzing sadness.

Any wisdom tradition worth its salt teaches its practitioners how to handle both joy and suffering, inspiration and desperation, luck and adversity…. So don’t get hung up on false religion vs. science debates. Whatever is true in each does not conflict with the truths of the other. Religions and philosophies teach wisdom about being human that you don’t learn by any scientific method.

If I still haven’t convinced you that there’s hope, is it because you realize (subconsciously) that the journey from disillusionment to wisdom takes time and effort? If that’s the case, then cue the ideas you probably already know: The first step is always the most difficult, the entire journey can be divided into steps you can take, other people will help you if you let them, and living with disillusionment also takes time and effort. So what is the better time and effort?

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Longer Version

Est. Reading Time: 4 minutes

Have your 20’s left you disillusioned with life? Any one of these situations could do it:

  • Monthly student loan payments have changed the value of your college experience.
  • Family breakdowns or relationship struggles make the prospect of lifelong love in marriage seem impossible.
  • Culture undermines your religious or secular worldview and leaves you without a source of meaning.
  • You were a good high school or college athlete but are falling out of shape … or you’re already there.
  • You hate the career you thought you wanted, leading to burnout.
  • You can’t find a way into the career you know you want.
  • You’ve got it all but still aren’t happy.

What Do All These Situations Have In Common?

These situations have two things in common. They were years in the making and have no quick resolutions. You spent four (or more) years in college, made personal investments in relationships that ended, were raised with a certain worldview, gained great physical fitness and athletic skill, prepared for a career, or achieved the kind of life you thought would be enough.

It’s no surprise that some people feel disillusioned with life in their 20’s.

You’ve lived long enough to actually have a situation that developed over years. You’ve grown up enough to take the responsibility for resolving that situation. But you haven’t actually resolved anything so big before, and you don’t have the life experience to do it.

If you’ve become suddenly disillusioned with life because of a shock, then slow down, allow shock to pass, and reflect. My work in medical ethics taught me that patients who suddenly become disabled also become depressed, sometimes even asking for assisted suicide. But weeks or months later, they are imagining new aspirations, new ways to pursue old aspirations, and ways to cope with loss and grief.

The good news is that disillusionment can lead to growth, wisdom, and hope, you can acquire a realistic vision, and you still have a long time to live it. The challenge is to develop a new, realistic vision for the disillusioned part of your life. It takes patience and effort but is worth it.

Moving From Being Disillusioned With Life to Vision

“Develop” is a good word to describe the change from disillusionment to vision. Development means change in something that already exists. Developing yourself means changing something without changing everything.

Let’s say you’re struggling to find a spouse. You already know to focus on the things you can control, and you do that well in other areas of life: personal health, career, spiritual practices, and worldview. You have tried all the ways to “meet somebody,” but the relationships never last. Maybe it’s time to upgrade your high school notions about relationships. What actions can you take?

If you can gain clarity about what marriage is, you will gain facility in conversation about marriage. You will have a better idea about not only what to look for in a spouse, but also what you will do together for the rest of your lives and how to prepare yourself for married life. You will better recognize moments to have those conversations and have better conversations about marriage.

Most people know intuitively what marriage is. You promise to live together for the rest of your lives, to be open to having and raising children, to remain faithful in a sexual relationship, and to take care of each other physically and spiritually. But imagining how you and a boyfriend or girlfriend would actually do these things takes ongoing, dedicated thought, trial, error, and success.

Learning From Success and Failure

Authors new and old have understood how to translate thought into trial and learn from error and from success. If you want to gain clarity about marriage, you develop the habits of contemplating what marriage is and of doing the things that married people do as closely as you can without actually being married: strengthening (and lengthening) friendships, helping kids in grammar, middle, and high school, and avoiding a sexual relationship with anyone you’re not married to. Look for other people doing those things, start doing them together, and talk about what it’s like.

These conversations can be difficult and unsettling at times.

If you are the kind of person who intensely dislikes difficult conversations, try to reframe this activity. The discomfort is not fundamentally discomfort with yourself, but with some of the ideas and actions you thought would work out well, but for whatever reason have not. Changing those ideas and actions might help you become the person you’re fundamentally meant to be. Or sharing your ideas might help others become the people they are meant to be. Or both.

Replacing disillusionment with wisdom about your career, worldview, personal health, financial situation, friendships and family take a similar path. You already know a lot more than your high school self did about each of these areas of life and the actions to achieve happiness in each one of them.

Resolving disillusionment does not require doing away with yourself, but integrating new things into your self and helping others do the same. You won’t be doing away with your past, but you will be refining your thinking and acting to make possible the financial stability, relationships, view of a good life and society, use of your professional talent, or self-knowledge that seem to have failed you.

Actionable Steps


Take It Slowly

Recognize disillusionment without crisis. Slow down, let the crisis pass, and take more time for reflection.


Seek Understanding

Recognize what you’re disillusioned about. Not all disillusionment is dramatic. It may be the quiet prompting in your soul that a situation you’ve relied on isn’t stable and needs change.


Ask for Assistance

Seek help. A wise friend, counselor, or coach will help you find stability, reflect on your past, find adjustments, chart a new course that will probably take time to discover.


Never Stop Learning

Read. A book like Designing Your Life teaches a process of discovering new directions. There are great novels about disillusionment like The Great Gatsby and The Age of Innocence that explore the causes of disillusionment and what it feels like. But beware of trendy authors who capitalize on the concept. (YA fiction is the worst!) Atomic Habits explains how you cultivate the habits to support your aspirations.


Look Inward

Improve your planning and reflection game. Spend time each week recalling what you did, accomplished, messed up, and learned. I use the Monk Manual to keep my purposes in view and mentor others.

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About the Author

Grattan Brown

Grattan Brown

Academic Dean at Thales College

Grattan is helping to establish Thales College in Raleigh, North Carolina (USA) to open in Fall 2021. This small, non-sectarian liberal arts and business college will enable students to learn the arts of reasoning and speaking well, to study the great minds of the past, to gain professional skills and experience, to develop positive social and professional relationships, and to prepare for success in life and work.

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